Amanda Palmer rocks a solo set with a little help from her friends

By Sabrina Amiri

Evan Sahagian/Collegian

This past Friday, singer-songwriter and former Dresden Dolls vocalist Amanda Palmer delivered a rare solo performance at Northampton’s Calvin Theater. The show was advertised as such a rarity, with Palmer appearing without her backing band, The Grand Theft Orchestra, or any other sort of back-up instrumentation. However, she did have a number of guests perform throughout her non-stop three-hour set, the first of which was ACLU Benefit, or Noah Britton. Her guests later in the night included MassArt senior Sarah Borrello and Palmer’s longtime friend, musician and martial artist Cormac Bride.

Britton, who appeared in a floor-length dress styled as a Harlem Globetrotters jersey, entertained the audience with his deep tenor vocals and somewhat sardonic lyrics. He played songs such as “I Love You So Much!” and got audience members singing along to other songs off of his anti-folk Bandcamp release, “Suicide: The Best of.” Before his set ended, Palmer joined him for an entertaining duet of “Puff the Magic Dragon.”

Palmer got into her set with “Astronaut: A Short History of Nearly Nothing,” a dark and grandiose song off of her first solo album, “Who Killed Amanda Palmer?” She tapped into The Dresden Dolls’ discography frequently throughout the evening, playing songs like “Miss Me,” which she simply introduced as a “song about consent.”

After playing “Straight” and discussing the merits of writing lyrics like a “crazy person,” Palmer lived up to her reputation as the queen of crowd-sourcing, a title which she earned after raising $1.2 million on Kickstarter to produce her latest album, “Theatre is Evil.” She asked the crowd for song requests and jotted down a number of them down before playing about 30 seconds of “Eye of the Tiger” for one fan, then moving onto an incredibly heartrending performance of “The Bed Song,” a ballad about the life and death of a couple sung in terms of different beds. The rendition was flawless despite Palmer’s concerns about a lack of practice affecting the performance.

Palmer prefaced the next song by disclaiming that she had doubts about knowing how to play it in its entirety. However, with a little help from the audience, she successfully made it through “Mrs. O” before picking up her ukulele to rouse the crowd in a sing-along of “Map of Tasmania,” the title of which is a euphemism for pubic hair.

A self-proclaimed novice to the ukulele, Palmer stated that she really “only knows six chords” and had a rather difficult time tuning the tiny fire truck red instrument on stage, but she didn’t let that dampen the next wistful tune, “In My Mind.” During the song, she sang about an idealized version of herself. “I never lose my wallet, because I will be the picture of discipline, never f***ing up anything,” she said. Yet, she later declared the sole “cosmic key to not losing your wallet: don’t have one.”  This sort of irony is typical of Palmer’s discography, throughout which she sings matter-of-factly about a range of topics from self-acceptance to sexual abuse.

At this point, Palmer invited her second guest, Borrello, on stage to play a song while she dashed behind the curtain. Borrello only played a single song, but the college senior’s enormously soulful voice filled the whole theater and dazzled the audience with a very bluesy rendition of “Stranglehold.”

After Borrello’s performance, Palmer returned to the stage and, rather than heading right back into her set, had a relaxed conversation with Borrello about her current career as a musician and her post-graduate plans. Borrello lamented playing music at clubs where she was typically a fixture in the background, but stated that she greatly appreciated the few people who made recurring appearances in the audience and took notice of her music.

Palmer consoled Borrello with the story of her “worst performance ever” as a member of The Dresden Dolls; early on in their career, she and band mate Brian Viglione had secured a gig at a bar in St. Louis the night of the World Series. The two played music as best as they could in front a massive big-screen TV playing the baseball game, but no attention was paid to them. Palmer stated that while her cohort, Viglione, was having a grand time just playing music, she was moved to tears by the crowd’s indifference to their presence. According to Palmer, their performance reached its height of awfulness when they performed a stirring cover of Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Two-Headed Boy” and the small crowd rose to their feet and gave a thunderous applause – because a home run had been scored.

After their discussion drew to a close, Palmer played a cover of Bat for Lashes’ “Laura” and thundered through another Dresden Dolls tune, “Runs in the Family,” before inviting her last guest, Bride, on stage. He played a song called “Footsteps,” which according to his Twitter account, he plans to record within the next week. Palmer then chatted with him for a bit, calling him one of the “best songwriters” she knows. Next, the two performed Palmer’s “The Killing Type,” moving one audience member to fling her panties at Bride’s feet, which he gratefully picked up and wore on his head.

Bride took them off only to have a serious discussion about his personal philosophy of relating martial arts and music together. He stated that although martial arts is rife with competition, the greatest of martial artists focus only on competing with and bettering oneself. He approaches music in the same way, considering it a defensive art as well. After this discussion, Palmer played “Ampersand” at Bride’s request.

The two took a moment to discuss Nirvana’s late lead singer, Kurt Cobain, who reputedly committed suicide on that night 19 years prior. This segued into the debut of a new song that Palmer had written the previous night. She stated that aside from “The Ukulele Anthem,” it was the first song she had written in three years. The unnamed song was inspired by Palmer borrowing a friend’s bikini without returning it (the friend was actually in attendance at the show, and Palmer apologized profusely for having stolen her bikini). In addition, the song questions the importance people place in material possessions and how they can at times distort memories and perspective, like a keepsake from a departed loved one.

As the night drew to a close, Palmer howled a cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” and performed “The Ukulele Anthem,” a song born from Twitter suggestions and debuted at different Occupy Wall Street rallies, for her one-song encore. Finally, she bowed to a standing ovation and ran off stage to go receive concertgoers in the upstairs lobby of the Calvin, doling out hugs and kisses and maintaining her knack for connecting with fans on a personal level.

Sabrina Amiri can be reached at [email protected]